Of all the ways in which a nation defines itself, few are more important than what it teaches its children about itself. In the history classes of its public schools, a nation retells its own story and instills a national identity in the minds of young citizens. In today’s America, where competing racial, cultural, and linguistic claims now make it nearly impossible even to speak of national identity, questions about history have become a struggle for the possession of America’s past.
The multicultural, multiperspective history that has arisen from this struggle is not merely a departure from the history America has always taught its children. It may be the first time that a nation has abandoned the single identity of its origins and set out deliberately to adopt multiple national identities.
Significantly, the understanding by many non-whites of multicultural history is entirely different from that of whites. For whites, the central concepts are “inclusion” and “pluralism.” American history is to be rewritten so that racial and cultural perspectives that were once “ignored” or “neglected” will get equal treatment. For many non-whites, however, multicultural history is merely a step on the way to an explicitly racial, Afro-centric or Hispanic history. Their goal is separation rather than inclusion.The “conservative” view is that explicitly racial histories are illegitimate. America, it is argued, must be united by a common history, and exclusionist histories will disunite us. This position is logically correct; exclusionist histories are divisive. But as we shall see, the “conservative” position is wrong — practically, emotionally, and even morally. America is already disunited by race, and no approach to history can change that. Just as it would be impossible to use the same history book in both France and England, it is impossible to write a single American history that satisfies, white, black, Indian, Hispanic, and Asian.